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Adventures on India’s first bicycle highway 

By Avinash Noronha

New Delhi: A few months ago the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh announced a plan to build a cycling highway in India between Etawah and Agra. Dedicated cycling highways are common in the developed world but this was the first in our country.

This much needed boost to the sport, amidst increasing pollution and traffic snarls, was being held in a part of India which people generally fear to visit because of its many tales of lawlessness, including the dreaded Chambal ravines.

When I first heard about this race, I was skeptical. A race conducted by the government, in an area not particularly known for its safety and security? But it was being held a stone’s throw from where I live; and there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that said I should participate. If there were people who were putting in so much effort to organize and conduct this race, then the very least I could do was to show up there and ride my heart out.

With minimal practice and preparation I landed up at the gates of the Decathlon store in Noida from where the 150 participants were to leave for the Chambal Safari Lodge. Bikes safely packed in an accompanying truck; we enjoyed the comfortable journey to the resort. For the latter half of the route we had a police escort as we hooted our way through traffic.

On a relatively narrow 2-lane State Highway our convoy breezed through, aggressively pushing everyday cyclists off the roads! Ironical! Here we were sitting with fancy riding gear and bikes going for a cycling event, where our accomplishments would be celebrated; while simultaneously harassing the cyclist on his daily commute. Though this just does also show how important it is to have dedicated cycling lanes around the country if we want people to take up cycling in larger numbers.

There would not have been a single person who could find cause to complain at the campsite. The arrangements by were fantastic. They had thought of every little thing that a cyclist might require. After lunch and tea, the truck with the bikes finally arrived and suddenly the campsite was buzzing with activity, as everyone went about setting up their bikes to perfection. There were mechanics present on site to assist with assembling the bikes that were kept really busy with pesky cyclists like me.

At sunset most of us went out with our bikes for a quick spin to ensure all was in order. All that effort did help us work up an appetite and the sumptuous dinner didn’t disappoint. For a cyclist food is possibly the most important thing on the riding agenda!

There was also a comprehensive briefing by the team on the first evening, about the two race days. Dinner was good, not just because of the food, but also because of the fantastic cyclists I met. Accomplished riders who had been there, done that. Inspiring and humbling in equal measure.

Race Day finally! A 5 o’clock wakeup call and equally early breakfast later we were in the bus again heading to the starting point – The Lion Safari Park in Etawah. Well the closest thing I saw resembling a lion were the politicians strutting around! They were there in full force along with the establishment. Full police bandobast all along the route, to ensure the safety of the participants.

The flag off was a staggered time start, since it would have been dangerous for a mass start in the circumstances. The coward that I am, I stood at the very end of the line, not wanting to get caught up in an incident with over enthusiastic cyclists looking to win a 75 km race in the first kilometer itself!

My strategy was to ride as if it were my regular city ride, and just complete it without incident. As the flag dropped my plan flopped! The first 100 meters went to plan, till someone overtook me. And then better sense didn’t prevail! I pushed hard from the outset with my heart immediately thumping away to glory. I was setting a pace I couldn’t maintain. I backed off for a moment to regain my breath, but my newly acquired friend Gaurav latched onto my rear wheel and immediately started pushing me from behind shouting out enthusiastic commands to go faster!

Pumped with adrenalin I once again pushed beyond my comfort zone. That was mistake number one! Mistake number two happened soon after within the first 3 km. I flew over a speed breaker safely, but my water bottle came loose and as I stopped to pick it up, I forgot I was wearing cleats. And I had my first crash at 0 kmph in front of many surprised looking spectators who until then had been cheering on those colorful wheeler dealers! I picked up myself, bottle and bike amid peals of laughter.

Embarrassed as hell I wanted to get away from them fast and once again started hammering away on the pedals. Within the next few kilometers Gaurav and I made quick work of the backmarkers as we worked together at a good clip. We had overtaken 50 riders within the first 10 km itself. A few kilometers later Gaurav dropped off the pace and I passed the first refueling point at the 20 km mark. I waved away a proffered hand with the sweet nectar of life, suffering from overconfidence. We had started the race at 11 am and the sun was beating down hard. Not drinking sufficient water in the beginning and not refueling at the water points was big mistake number three!

Ignoring the very important aspect of proper hydration I pushed on and soon caught up with another new friend Chandru. We rode together for a bit and I continued pushing till Chandru got left behind and I had overtaken almost 100 cyclists since the start of the race. We were zipping on the narrow roads as I intermittently rode with different cyclists pushing ahead. Until calamity struck again! We were passing through a village and there was a speed breaker tucked away nicely behind a bend in the shade. I didn’t spot it in time and went flying over it, giving the bystanders another glorious spectacle which they could laugh about! With the number of people making videos on their phones, I am sure someone captured my wild antics! Antics which found me getting off the saddle and onto the handlebars mid-air before somehow hanging on for dear life and not crashing.

Not only did the incident knock the confidence out of me, I also managed to pull a calf muscle. Not paying heed to the aching muscle I sprinted up the next climb in an attempt to catch the guys ahead of me. And then disaster finally struck, I cramped up badly and had to jump off my bike and rest before I could continue. Lack of water and excessive enthusiasm had taken their toll!

But the cramping turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Being forced to slow down, meant that I enjoyed my ride, the countryside, the cheering school children, the waving policemen and the greenery of the #GreenPath! Every time a cyclist passed through a village, the children would stand up and cheer.

It was fantastic, yet terrible. Terrible, because I didn’t deserve the standing ovation. I limped to the third and fourth rehydration points, riding behind the rear wheel of another newly acquired riding buddy, Prakash. Making slow progress, I watched as cyclist after cyclist passed me. Unperturbed I crossed the finish line, happy to just finish. The headwinds, sun and lack of water had drained me. The mud flowing off my body in the shower and the liters of water I drank before lunch drove home the point of how stupidly I had ridden. I made a small knot in my mental handkerchief to be less stupid the second day!

As riders continued to trickle in for the next couple of hours, the camp was abuzz with energy and stories of everyone’s ride, including the inevitable crashes. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt, but a few poor souls could be seen bandaged up limping around camp! Of course not one of those wounded soldiers had any intention of giving up on the second day. Everyone was ready to race!

The second day saw an earlier flag off at 8 AM. We were happy to start early, to clock more miles before the sun came out in full force. Learning from the previous day’s mistake I carried an extra bottle of water along with energy bars and promised myself to ride slow. The moment I rested my aching posterior on the saddle, I realized the race was going to be agonizingly long! Once again starting from the back of the pack, I slowly made my way ahead, taking my own sweet time and not getting sucked into following a big group of cyclists from Delhi who breezed past me.

The headwinds were as strong as on the first day and progress was painfully slow, until a small group of organised cyclists caught up with me and I latched onto them. They were riding a comfortable yet decent pace, and I took turns with them at the front fighting the wind. The group was getting gradually bigger as we caught more riders in front of us.

In fact our progress reminded me of the ‘Snake’ game we had on our old Nokia handsets! The snake, though, got its tail cut off as we climbed out of a dry riverbed.

A rider from Himanchal and I pulled ahead and we soon caught up with a lady cyclist from Maharashtra. She was the eventual winner of the Women’s Masters Category. The three of us rode together rotating the lead, though for the most part I was tucked in behind the rear wheel of the lady! I eventually caught and passed Chandru, Gaurav and Prakash before we crossed the finish line.

Only then did I get to know that Prakash and Chandru had had an incident while riding together! A drone was flying overhead filming them, and they both looked up to see if it was a bird, a plane or superman. Unfortunately when they did look down it was tyre hitting tyre and body hitting tarmac! Chandru had a hip bone fracture, but that didn’t stop him from riding all the way to the finish and beyond. His hardiness was inspiring. He finished along with Gaurav, who was also unlucky to take a tumble.

Everyone was ecstatic after having finished, with finisher medals being handed out to everyone. Equally important, lunch was handed out as well. A short break later, the entire cycling contingent rode along with the Chief Minister, AkhileshYadav, to the venue where the prizes were handed out to the winners.

The closing ceremony was quite the fancy political do! Though it paled in comparison to the experience of riding on the first bicycle highway of the country. The memories that we would take back, of the smiling faces of the villagers as they cheered us on, the natural beauty of rural India and the fantastic riders we met and interacted with. We hope to have many more such rides and bicycle highways in India.

(The writer is a Delhi based Senior Correspondent for xBHP, a motorcycling magazine. He has cycled in the snowy Himalayas, and the vast expanse of Mongolia.)

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